The Man Trying to Unionize College Football

Northwestern’s starting quarterback wants to level the playing field.

Feb 1, 2014 at 11:45AM


Northwestern's football coaching staff in 1956. A happier time for college football.

Imagine a job that requires you to constantly test the boundaries of physical stamina, putting you in real danger of incurring injuries -- from minor to serious -- on a regular basis. Not incidentally, the work you perform is astoundingly lucrative for your employer. The pay, essentially, is free room and board.

Though millions vie for these jobs, few are chosen. For college athletes, the glory of being a sports icon for their school, as well as the potential of a paid-for college degree, is enticing enough to keep the recruits coming. Meanwhile, the institutions of higher learning rake in the cash, and allow players no voice in the way the game is played.

All that is about to change, however -- if the Northwestern Wildcats have their way.


Kain Colter. Source: NUFootballFamily.

Wildcats strike a blow for players' rights
When the news broke that Northwestern's football team filed a petition for union representation at the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago earlier this week, many were undoubtedly taken by surprise. In truth, the filing, performed by the president of the National College Players Association on the team's behalf, was the culmination of several months of hard work on the part of the players -- particularly their lead spokesman, Kain Colter.

Colter's interest in organizing his teammates began in earnest last summer, when a course on workplace issues opened his eyes to the concept of a student athletes' union. Last fall, Colter and some of his teammates stenciled the initials APU, which stands for All Players United, on football uniforms and equipment, unbeknownst to the team's head coach. Colter proclaimed his belief that all college athletes should be free to express their own opinions, without the intervention of others.

College sports: not all it appears to be
Colter is upfront about the reasons for the filing of the petition and several union cards signed by members of his team. He notes that the players' complaint is not against the college, but is an effort to gain recognition by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, by whose rules schools and athletes alike must abide. Student athletes want a place at the negotiating table, and to have a say in how they are treated. One of the most pressing issues is players' medical expenses -- which Colter says are not always covered by colleges and universities.

The treatment of college sports participants can be fairly shabby. Although many assume that players are treated like royalty, such is not always the case. A recently published, in-depth series on college football by Sports Illustrated notes that many schools don't even offer athletes a four-year scholarship -- and, for those that do, renewals are often done on a yearly basis, and awarded only as long as a player continues to be profitable. For those who sustain injury, for instance, the end of the line can come brutally fast, leaving a student with no money, no degree -- and no options.

Meanwhile, schools are making millions, even billions, on the backs of these players, paying coaches and their assistants million-dollar salaries, while players go uncompensated.


Colter may be starting a bigger movement. Source: NUFootballFamily

A historic step
Time will tell whether the Wildcats are granted their wish to be represented by the newly created College Athletes Players Association, which has the backing of the United Steelworkers. For their part, the NCAA has responded by stating that college athletes are "not employees," and the matter may eventually be decided in court, perhaps years from now.

Without a doubt, the move for official recognition by Kain Colter and his fellow Wildcats was an historic one, and, if successful, will likely be replicated throughout college athletics. No matter what the outcome, however, Colter and his teammates deserve credit for bringing out of the shadows a hidden aspect of college sports that has long needed addressing.

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